Critical Pictures: Page 4, Analog By Design
Students need critical awareness of visual rhetoric for a variety of reasons, but one big reason is the increase of time spent in digital environments where visual elements mix readily with traditional text. Comics might seem like an antiquated response to this need, but making comics allowed us to explore the basic elements of visual literacy in only a week. If we had more time, I would gladly extend the lesson to include digital modes like websites or video projects. Given that one of the motivations for this activity is to prepare students for critical reading of digital media, why not use digital media in the activity? Some colleagues have asked me why I don’t just ask the students to use one of the many online comics creator websites. After all, we could have made comics in just a couple minutes, right?
Right, but we learn best by doing, and ultimately, I wanted my students to think through the authorial decisions and visual rhetoric at every stage. With a hand-drawn comic, the students had to think about the overall layout of the page, the degree of zoom and camera angles for the various panels, how to mix words and pictures enough to keep the reader interested while also conveying necessary information, and more. Making just a one-page comic of one scene of Thoreau’s essay became a series of deep rhetorical decisions.
Unfortunately, making digital comics with pre-set options would not allow for the same experience. Such websites are useful, but I do think that because we learn best by doing, in this case going analog with pencils on paper allowed students to more fully explore how visual design—something as simple as the degree of shading or whether the camera angle is from above, below, or at eye level—can persuade the audience. These design decisions are usually made for you when using a comics creator website.